Experience the Spiritual Culture of Japan through Strolling Monk Training in the Three Mountains of Dewa
Climbing the approach to a shrine step by step, you hear the solemn sound of a shell horn coming from nowhere. You stop to look for the source of the sound, and find a strolling monk coming down the stairs blowing the shell horn – a stately scene that makes you lose track of time. For people in ancient times, mountains were holy sanctuaries of the gods, where ancestors’ spirits rested in peace. Strolling monks are practitioners of Shugen-do, a religion merging traditional Japanese beliefs, including the worship of mountains, Jingi Worship and Onmyodo. Shugen-do, which requires its practitioners to go out into the middle of a vast wilderness and reflect on themselves through ritual purification (misogi) and training, reminds one of the meaning of soul-searching, a practice forgotten by many Japanese today. Mt. Haguro, still home to many Shugen-do practitioners, is one of the “power spots” where you can actually experience the strolling monk training that started in 593. Here are some tips when you decide to go through this traditional training.
The Three Mountains of Dewa, one of the three biggest Shugen-do training mountains in Japan for practitioners
The Shonai area in Yamagata Prefecture is one of the main granaries of Japan. Located beyond the expansive, idyllic landscape, the Three Mountains of Dewa (Dewa Sanzan) are among the three biggest Shugen-do training mountains in Japan. The Three Mountains are Gassan, Mt. Haguro and Mt. Yudono, all of which have been revered as sacred places for mountain worship since long ago. Each of the Three Mountains represents a Pure Land – Mt. Haguro for this life, Gassan for the previous life, and Mt. Yudono for the afterlife. The itinerary for visiting the Three Mountains of Dewa starts at Mt. Haguro, continues to Gassan, and then ends with Mt. Yudono, so as to learn about the significance of reincarnation. This pilgrimage has been passed down to this day as a typical feature of the Tohoku region. But you can also choose just to relax and consider the itinerary as a tour of power spots.
Strolling monk training experience available to international tourists
The Three Mountains of Dewa have been worshiped by local residents since long ago as a training ground for strolling monks. The Haguro style of old Shugen-do has inherited the strict strolling monk training practice since the olden days. Monks continue to train themselves today, with the same zeal that has been passed down to this day through the centuries.
The Haguro Town Tourist Association organizes an annual three-day “strolling monk training experience” program which is open to anyone. This program offers you the experience of strolling monk training including part of the ten realm trials (i.e. fasting, doing without water, etc.) and cold water cleansing by a waterfall. Although the training might sound like an ordeal, the strolling monk training experience program is very accessible to international tourists as it only incorporates part of the ten realm trials.
Approaching Mt. Haguro with a strolling monk
In addition to the experience of strolling monk training, another program offers you an opportunity to follow a strolling monk on the approach to Mt. Haguro. Cued by the sound of a shell horn, you climb up the 2,446 stairs leading to the main shrine at the summit.
There are several reasons why a strolling monk blows the shell horn while walking. The first reason is to inform the mountain god of his presence. Since the mountain god always resides in his territory, the monk reports his entry with the sound of the shell horn to ask for protection. The second reason is to inform the temple. They need to know if the monk has safely completed his training without getting lost. The third reason is to avoid wild animals. The sound of the horn helps scare away timid bears and wild dogs. (Some point to other factors such as laying devils to rest and communicating with fellow monks.)
When you reach the summit, the monk blows the horn once again. The haunting sound brings you a feeling of fulfillment and energy now that you have come all this way. At the summit, you visit each of the shrines, ending with Sanjin Gosaiden, a shrine that collectively honors the gods of Gassan, Mt. Haguro and Mt. Yudono.
Shojin dishes, life-sustaining foods for strolling monks
Shojin dishes, which once composed the meals of strolling monks, are another essential feature of Shugen-do. Using no meat or fish, shojin dishes actually represent a Japanese vegetarian diet.
Indeed, shojin dishes are life-sustaining foods for strolling monks, who stay in the mountains throughout the year. Each dish, featuring seasonal mountain vegetables or mushrooms, embodies the unique tradition of Haguro passed down from long ago. Pickles are non-perishables for winter, when no crops can be harvested as everything is covered with snow. The variety of dishes owes much to the wisdom of our ancestors.
Japanese spiritual culture as observed in Shugen-do
Strolling monks have been training themselves in holy places surrounded by the vast wilderness of the Three Mountains of Dewa. You can appreciate the long-established spiritual culture of the Japanese people through Shugen-do, a practice that involves reflecting on oneself while worshiping gods and Buddha at the same time. The strolling monk training experience, the precious time spent with a strolling monk and zazen practice in temples and dormitories nearby, is an excellent opportunity to reflect on and improve yourself. It is highly recommended to visit the Three Mountains of Dewa, or the “power spot” of Tohoku, to experience the heart of the Japanese people, inherited by strolling monks.